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Waters plans financial services agenda should Democrats flood the House

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It was a brisk February morning and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver had a spring in his step. The seven-term Missouri Democrat had his sights on something greater than the crunch of old snow beneath his feet: retaking the House of Representatives.

Democrats have not held the House since the Tea Party takeover of 2010 in the wake of the U.S. financial crisis and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Yet the probability of a Democratic takeover of at least one congressional chamber is looking more likely as the country barrels toward Nov. 6.

House Democrats have already been planning their agenda for the powerful committees they may control in the next session of Congress.

Cleaver, ranking member on the Housing and Insurance subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, had been talking that week with other top Democrats on the committee about their strategy should they reclaim the majority.

Cleaver described a regime where the subcommittees would focus on policymaking, while the broader committee would focus its efforts — complete with subpoena power — on digging into Trump.

Waters' way

From almost a dozen interviews and conversations with industry sources, Capitol Hill insiders and lawmakers, the general sense is that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, will have the strongest chance of getting legislation to President Donald Trump's desk. She would also use the full force of the majority party to bring Trump's officials before the committee.

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But Compass Point Research & Trading analyst Isaac Boltansky said the question is still what legislation, if any, Democrats will be able to advance.

An overhaul of financial regulatory reform is not likely to top Waters' list of legislative priorities as the potential chair.

In a statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence, Waters wrote she is "committed to ensuring opportunities for small businesses; expanding affordable housing opportunities; supporting safeguards to prevent another financial crisis; maintaining consumer and investor protections; and overseeing the regulatory agencies under the Committee's jurisdiction."

Boltansky said the expectation is that a robust oversight of Trump's family business and "the entirety of the regulatory regime" is more likely to take up Waters' time.

In July, Waters said her top priorities as chair would be moving on housing finance reform and expanding affordable housing programs. In addition, she said she would "undo the harm" that Mick Mulvaney has done as the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, specifically calling out Mulvaney’s decision to downsize the agency’s advisory board.

But it is unclear what Waters would specifically do with regard to the CFPB. In the current Congress, Democrats on the committee acknowledged that a Republican majority put them at a legislative disadvantage and floated few policy proposals on protecting the agency.

In one instance, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., proposed an amendment to the 2019 budget bill that would codify the CFPB’s independent funding structure, but it was voted down by the committee.

Waters, who has repeatedly expressed a desire to hammer Wells Fargo & Co., "absolutely" felt that the other large global systemically important banks — Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America Corp. — should be punished for wrongdoing as well. Although Waters did not list Dodd-Frank reform as a top priority, her office has offered many legislative proposals on financial regulation in the past. Waters' most recent push for banking law reform came from a late 2017 bill that would pressure regulators to break up a megabank for repeated violations of consumer protection law.

The bill was timed shortly after Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan testified to Congress amid new sales scandals at the company, likely capitalizing off public interest in regulating Wall Street. But the bill never saw the light of day in the Republican-controlled committee, and it is unclear if the bill would be reintroduced if Waters becomes chair.

The red scenario

If the GOP keep the committee, they would likely continue to push financial regulatory reform, although it is uncertain where a GOP-led committee would set its priorities.

Most of the agenda will depend on what Republican becomes chair. A musical chairs-like dance is happening within the party centered around the political future of North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry.

With House Speaker Paul Ryan retiring, McHenry could move up from deputy whip to whip, depending on how the next House GOP head is selected.

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Early indicators show that if McHenry does not ascend to GOP leadership in the house, he will become chair of the committee. McHenry has historically been interested in capital markets, and would likely push forward on the JOBS 3.0 bill that Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, advanced late in the current Congress.

McHenry would also be expected to push forward on fintech regulation.

He introduced a bill that would implement the so-called "Madden fix," making it easier for digital lenders to partner with banks. As a North Carolina Republican, McHenry could also take on issues related to bank de novo formation, since the state has recently been a hot bed for new bank formation.

But late-cycle election analysts indicate a Republican hold on the House is unlikely.

Compass Point's Boltansky said the Democratic Party is going to mirror the same upheaval the Republican Party endured in 2010 — more radical factions fighting with rank-and-file Democrats for the "heart of the Democratic party."

"History doesn't repeat itself," Boltansky said, "but it often rhymes."